Notebook, 1993-

MATERIALS & METHODS - Pigments - Approved Pigment List - The Permanent Palette - Restricted Palettes

Color Properties - Pigment Properties - Purity - Permanence

Classification - Grades of Artists' Paints -

From: Mayer, Ralph. The Painter's Craft. An Introduction to Artist's Methods and Materials. Revised and updated by Steven Sheehan, Director of the Ralph Mayer Center, Yale University School of Art. New York: Penquin Group. 1948. 1991.

Grades of Artists' Paints

In the artists' supply shops one is usually confronted by a vast array of oil colors, watercolors, brushes, and other articles, which are confusing not only to the inexperienced but also to some mature painters who have become accustomed to specific brands of goods and are sometimes at a loss to decide, when called upon, to distinguish between unfamiliar makes and varieties.

The advice of all competent authorities and most experienced teachers is that, unless such severe financial limitations exist as to make their purchase impossible, none but the very highest grades of colors, brushes, paper, or canvas should ever be chosen either by students or serious painters. The difference between their working or manipulative qualities and those of the inferior grades is so great as to produce entirely different results; it has been noted, for example, in classes where groups of students attempt to work on new techniques, that the ones who have brushes of the proper quality usually turn out the best results as far as technical success and paint quality are concerned. The same is true of all other supplies and materials. [p. 216]

Three broad classes of paints are sold by the various artists'-material manufacturers. The first- or top-quality professional grade, sold at the highest prices, is supposed to be the finest material the manufacturer can put out--pigments carefully selected from what is honestly believed to be the finest available from world-wide sources; the oils, watercolor vehicles, or other liquids expertly chosen and compounded according to the most approved procedures. The grinding or other manufacturing operations for a first-rate paint are carried out with conscientious attention to secure the best results, and the entire production is kept under a rigid system of checks and controls.

In addition to their lines of materials that serve the creative painter, the art supply shops are full of goods which, although they are excellent products that fill genuine needs and serve the purposes for which they are intended, are entirely unsuitable for permanent, creative painting. They are used by illustrators and others whose work is done for reproduction, where the original work has no function as a unique work of art; also in other practical and decorative branches of art where long-term permanence is not a factor. Such items as colored pencils and crayons, superbrilliant but fugitive colors, wood-pulp papers and boards, colored inks and markers that contain soluble dyes that fade, spray products not formulated for fine-arts use, low-cost canvases and boards have often tempted painters to use them in easel paintings, drawings, and prints, with disastrous results. [pp. 216-217]

Preferred Brands of Paint
For the most part, with hardly any exceptions, the first-grade lines of the well-known, widely distributed American manufacturers comply with certain standards, and the difference between them are more likely to be those of personal judgment than of value since, naturally, there are as many opinions among the paint technicians as to what constitutes a perfect color as there are among artists. When it comes to the finer points, one will find quite a variation; one firm will believe that Indian red should be made of the bluest shade available; another will select an average medium bluish shade. One firm's medium cadmium yellow will be the equivalent of another's deep cadmium yellow. Some painters develop preferences for specific colors and buy one brand of burnt sienna, another brand of flake white, and so on, whereas others adhere to one entire make.

Furthermore, the top-grade oil colors are now more or less standardized in terms of basic, minimum quality. The American Society for Testing and materials has established a set of specifications, to which artists' colors sold conform, and any tube of artist paint with a guarantee on the label that the tube complies with these specifications may be relied upon to be of acceptable quality. Paints that exceed these specifications would indeed be superlative in quality. The ASTM standards are the result of a voluntary agreement between artists' groups and manufacturers. Along with an improved naming system called the Color Index, these standards quickly reformed a chaotic nomenclature that had plagued artists for centuries. Everyone should help maintain standard pigment names and discourage the use of fanciful ones.

In evaluating the products of small, local, or new concerns, one must not be too prompt to condemn them, as it is entirely possible to make fine materials commercially on a small scale, and among such we find many entirely satisfactory products. However, it is well to remember that good intentions alone do not make good paints; experience over a long period of years in actual production is requisite, and the lack of sufficient resources to maintain uniformity of materials, experienced personnel, top manufacturing facilities, and rigid controls can be a great handicap to efficiency. [pp. 218-219]

Second-grade Colors
In addition to the top-grade lines of oil colors and watercolors, most of the larger manufacturers also put out a second-grade line under a distinctive trade name. Because there is a large class of users who have small concern with permanence and superior control, these products are an important item in the artists'-material trade, probably outselling the finer materials. The better ones among these second-rate products generally brush out well and have fair brilliance and strength, but they are inferior to the top grades. No restrictions or standards exist by which their quality can be controlled. If the manufacturer wants to cheapen a line of colors by using various extenders, or by using lower-grade pigments and oils or less expensive grinding methods, it matters little which course is taken; these paints are not made for the utmost in permanence and performance that is expected of materials designed for serious creative work, and their habitual use is not recommended. For students' exercises, for paintings of a temporary nature, or for work intended solely for reproduction, their use is justified on the basis of economy. [p. 219]

Students' Grade Paints
A still lower grade of paints, sold at the lowest prices, is also to be found on the market. These are [p. 219] generally made as cheaply as possible with cost being the prime consideration, and consequently they are of inferior quality. The "students' quality" lines often contain imitation colors, impermanent pigments and vehicles, and they are very weak in tinting power. It is doubtful that their habitual use is justified by serious students, on the theory that training in painting should be carried on with the same or nearly the same professional materials and implements as will be employed in more advanced work. [pp. 219-220]

Modern Attitudes on Quality
Obviously, fine materials will not make a poor painter great; also no amount of care and success in technical details will make up for the lack of taste or other aesthetic virtues in art. These facts have led to a question in the minds of some painters as to whether the great emphasis placed on extreme qualities of materials and craftsmanship is not overdone; whether the statements of specialists are not a survival of a sort of unnecessary precaution, overrefinement, or preciousness. This reasoning is the sort of thing that led to the failures and the low level of technical accomplishment of the recent past. Our current standards are, as a matter of fact, based on a very practical basis. If one compares our present materials with those of former generations of painters, it will be seen that the element of preciousness has been entirely removed; even our most skillfully handmade products and our superlative grades are turned out in mass production as compared with the older procedures.

The regular high-grade industrial paints that are produced in bulk are no less carefully manufactured than the finest artists' colors, and although they are formulated to meet different specifications, the procedures or maintenance of quality and uniformity and the methods of control and testing are no different.

The artist of the past always realized that brushes, colors, and canvases were, or should be, superlative in quality, and accepted their greater cost as the necessary price one pays for materials that are beyond the run of the common merchandise of everyday use. The deliberate, habitual use of inferior materials by mature, professional painters is a new trend that has little precedence.

Painting materials in the earliest recorded days were indeed precious things; most of the raw materials were rare, they were obtained at the expense of much labor, and they were very costly. In the times of Giotto the colors were treated like jewels and placed [p. 220] upon the paintings with great care. Nowadays we can discard a left-over blob of hardened paint without a qualm, simply because it would be foolish to spend a day's labor to wash out the pigment, purify and regrind it when it can be replaced by clean, fresh material for a few cents. Our best materials are superior to the old grades in every way; they should be handled with the proper respect for their qualities. The use of cheap and inferior grades should be confined to purposes for which they are best suited. As previously indicated, all sorts of inferior materials have been common to all ages and places, and the careful painters of the past have always had to learn how to cope with such conditions. [pp. 220-221]

[Mayer, Ralph. The Painter's Craft. An Introduction to Artist's Methods and Materials. Revised and updated by Steven Sheehan, Director of the Ralph Mayer Center, Yale University School of Art. New York: Penquin Group. 1948. 1991. ]



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